How UW Health is reimagining hospital food with a focus on diversity and sustainability

The hospital system's culinary and clinical nutrition teams aim to make the healthy choice the easy choice, to benefit both diners and the environment.
foodservice worker
UW Health's culinary services department has about 300 full-time employees. | Photo courtesy of UW Health

 The culinary team at University of Wisconsin Health (UW Health) wants to change the stigma around hospital food.

“Food within a healthcare system is not known to be necessarily delicious or craveable, something that you would really seek out," said Amy Mihm, clinical nutrition specialist at UW Health. "And we wanted to change that model.”

The hospital system takes a holistic approach to foodservice and aims make its cafeterias a welcoming place for diners.

“For years, we've talked about having the healthy choice be the easy choice and the best price choice," said Lisa Bote, manager of culinary services. "We want to make the operation a place where our customers want to come and eat.” 

The team works across two departments—culinary services and clinical nutrition services, serving three hospitals in UW Health’s system. Culinary services works in two production kitchens, powered by about 300 full-time employees, while clinical nutrition serves inpatient and outpatient adults and pediatrics.

In addition, UW Health has a milk and formula lab on site and a learning kitchen at one of its hospitals.

“So, we really have a unique, I think, situation where we have the full lifecycle,” said Megan Waltz, director of culinary services and clinical nutrition services.

Feeding a diverse population

The system prides itself on serving a varied menu to account for the diversity in the population it serves.

In 2023, UW Health received its third Practice Greenhealth Circles of Excellence award, which evaluates how healthcare systems are promoting and growing their sustainable food systems. Lawson said one of the areas the team was recognized for was serving foods that represent its staff’s cultures.

“We rely a lot on our own staff, because of the diversity of the staff, to really bring ideas to us about things that would be great options to add,” said Waltz.

Last year, UW Health also won a recipe contest put on by nonprofit Health Care Without Harm. When looking at which recipes to submit, the team hoped to tell the stories of its staff and its diverse customer base.

It decided to submit a recipe the team developed in 2021, an Afghan-inspired vegetable korma.

When the Taliban took over Afghanistan, Wisconsin saw an influx of Afghan refugees, Bote said, and UW Health’s children’s hospital received many pediatric patients from Afghanistan. They heard feedback from these patients and their families that the offerings on the menu didn’t resonate with them. The team quickly jumped to action, consulting a staff member who had emigrated from Afghanistan in her teens.

Vegetable kormaThe vegetable korma | Photo courtesy of Health Care Without Harm

“And she came up with this vegetable korma dish,” Bote said. “And it's savory, it's delicious. It's filling, it's comforting. It was a dish that her mother taught her how to make.”

Defining sustainability

When it comes to sustainability, UW Health considers more than just the environment. Lawson said the team also looks at community health and efforts to support local partnerships. She said that work in that area started about 10 years ago, when rates of pediatric obesity began to rise.

In response, the team began to develop nutrition and sustainability standards. “And we did that because our vision was that the food that we serve within our healthcare system should really model the behaviors that we're asking people to do on their health and wellness journey,” said Waltz.

One of UW Health’s big sustainability efforts is its push towards plant-forward fare. The health system signed onto the World Resources Institute’s Cool Food Pledge in 2019, setting a goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 25% by 2030. Mihm said that the Cool Food commitment sparked an opportunity for the team to evaluate how it sources food and develops menus.

The team focuses its plant-forward strategy on produce, rather than meat analogues, and markets the food in a way that highlights what is being added to the plate, rather than what’s being taken away.

“I think when you speak plant forward, for some individuals that can be intimidating,” said Mihm. “So how do you develop an approachable menu? Approachable types of foods that may or may not be familiar to somebody, but yet, because it tastes amazing, they're willing to give it a try.”

grain bowlA Mediterranean grain bowl. | Photo courtesy of UW Health

Waltz said that word choice surrounding plant-centric options is also important. Rather than use terms like vegetarian or vegan, they opt to describe menu options as plant-forward.

In addition, Bote noted that the team has worked on yield studies to look at ways to reduce meat in some dishes and add more vegetables, beans or pulses.

“When we do this, we don't necessarily make a large announcement and do marketing around it for our customers,” Bote said. “But we hold that behind the scenes, and we hear the customers’ feedback about any changes that we've made. And typically, there's good feedback about it because the food simply tastes good.”

One way the team markets its plant-forward fare is through sampling events. Bote said that sometimes diners are a bit apprehensive about new menu items, but they’re still willing to try and are often surprised at the flavors.

Customer feedback to plant-forward items has generally been positive, and the majority of recipe requests the team receives are for plant-forward options. Culinary services also goes through quite a bit of tofu, as one popular recipe is tofu based.

The team agreed that while diners have gotten on board with the plant-forward movement, it has taken some time.

“When we began this journey, literally 10 or more years ago, we may have received more negative feedback about how the food system was changing,” said Mihm.

Waltz attributes the change in customer perception in part to COVID. She said she has seen a larger focus on personal health in recent years, adding that she saw a pretty high increase in the number of UW patients with pre-diabetes during the pandemic.

“So, knowing that people were starting to see that as disease rates were going up for chronic conditions, we also started to see people paying more attention to their health and wellness, and what resources they need,” said Waltz. 

Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct the name Megan Lawson to Megan Waltz. 



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